Or something like that. I'm running out of titles.
There is a famous H.L. Mencken quote that goes: "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong." It seems that we all fall prey, at least from time to time, to certain incorrect ideas which sound so Platonically perfect, so rational and simple, that we believe they must be true. Occam's razor, the philosophical tool that, to simplify, states that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, usually guides us well, but when it fails, it can fail spectacularly. This is especially true of complex systems, systems which can not always be reduced to a number of simple rules. Our biases, our inability to measure, our limited hypotheses; all can contribute to fundamentally incorrect ideas that seem eminently reasonable. The early economists were a prime example of this; along with an almost untold number of brilliant insights were poor ideas such as David Ricardo's Iron Law of Wages. It was beautifully simple: as population rose, wages would lower thanks to competition. Lower wages would lead to starvation and thus lower childbirth, eventually decreasing job competition and raising wages. The higher wage earners would thus have larger families, and this grim cycle would continue ad infinitum. While seeming reasonable, in reality, the economy turns out not to be a zero sum game, nor were the fields of jobs or food productions: they had the ability to grow with demand, nullifying the "Iron Law" and introducing dynamics all their own. This same type of pristine logic can b e found in certain strains of libertarianism or certain branches of anarchism (depending on ones political leanings); ideas which seem eminently reasonable yet can crumble under the weight of different, unforseen types of evidence.
The first century or so of true urban studies, the approximately 100 years before the work of Jane Jacobs, seemed to follow this pattern to a T. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, cities grew to sizes unseen since the fall of the Roman Empire, and continued to grow at a rate that alarmed many. At the same time, there was a new generation of middle and upper class, often university trained individuals with bout the ability and desire to study new things in concrete manners. It was in this was that modern urban studies, the study of the city as an entity unto itself, was born. Unfortunately, this fledgling fields parents were almost universally reactionary and anti-urban, arguing that the city was morally debased and the cause of physical disease. Instead, they preferred an idealized form of countryside life, a type of life that most certainly had never existed historically. Make no mistake, there were valid complaints: housing stock for the poor was often despicable, and sanitation, not even invented until the second half of the 19th Century, took yet longer to implement in the dense cities of the time. Still, for every valid complaint came multiple arguments based around an a priori dislike of the city, extreme classism, social Darwinism, and a whole host of other poorly conceived yet often socially accepted ideas.
The second and third generations of urban planners, far more than those who had come before, were able to effect their ideas. As Ernest Burgess had predicted, the city's tenement districts which usually surrounded the Central Business District were only growing, and worse, the outer residential areas were developing their own retail and even commercial sectors, breaking the heretofore vice-like grip Downtown had had on commercial activity. Soon would come the Great Depression and with it massive federal aid programs, followed soon after by the postwar housing crunch and an attendant moral pressure to "cleanse" the newly coined "inner city." Urban theory, ideas based mainly on the prejudices and misconceptions of an earlier time, would get a chance to flex its muscle on a massive scale in the renewal and building projects that followed. Its results, for the most part, were disastrous, only accelerating the very trends they were designed to stop. It was this moment, the failure of an almost dogmatic system of urban thinking, upon which Jane Jacobs presented a far more nuanced and complete picture of urbanity, and of what the goals and tools of planners should or could be.
What does all this have to do with Robert Moses? Surprisingly little. For all his building prowess, Moses never had much interest urban studies or even urban planning in its more holistic sense. Though Yale educated, curiosity about complex systems, at least those not related to engineering, were not in Moses's personality. Rather, he tended to come to defensible, rational decisions about what was to be done, and then proceeded to fight dogmatically to achieve them (later in his career, the fighting was generally unnecessary). Moses got his start trying to introduced a merit-based civil service in Tammany Hall's cronyism-run New York, and though his higher moral ideals would fade, his self-righteous battle sense would not.
To make no pretense otherwise, the desire to rehabilitate Robert Moses disturbs me. It is not nesecarilly that what he accomplished was destructive; while undoubtedly much of it was, much of it was also necessary and beneficial. Rather, it was Moses methods, his ruthless acquisition and abuse of power that made him a monster. My initial inclination is to call him a petty tyrant, but the word petty is far too small; by the end of his life he had achieved tyrannical rule through and through. Moses had plans, and had *only* his plans; outside views or suggestions, no matter their merit, were not welcome. If you disagreed, as did those who desired to build a tunnel rather than his beloved Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, he was ruthlessly vindictive: he ordered New York's famous aquarium destroyed and almost succeeded in knocking down Castle Clinton, all out of sheer spite. To celebrate Moses accomplishments without acknowledging his ethical and moral failings, or how much his methods were an affront to any sort of democratic governance, would be akin to a one sided praise of Stalin's Five Year Plans. While they did build the Soviet Union up from a near feudal, peasant society in a major, Western, Industrial power in a few short years, the human and moral cost was enormous. No direct deaths are attributable to Robert Moses, of course, but in terms of political machinations this comparison is not as hyperbolic as it may sound.
The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Such was clearly the case for early urbanists*, and while it was hardly always the case for Robert Moses, particularly in the second half of his career, it was sometimes true of him as well. To a large degree this was due to a simple lack of experience and understanding (whether this lack was defensible or not is a question for another time). Where knowledge was strong and the goals clear, such as was the case at Jones Beach, the results were superb. Other plans were far less successful.
*And we hope, but alas, cannot prove, is not the case for us today.
Take parkways, for example. On paper, they seemed a perfect civic improvement: not only could massive new transportation corridors be provided, but at the same time, in the same project, long ribbon parks would be built at the same time, not only beautifying the roadway but providing recreation space for the surrounding communities (while the earliest parkways were purely recreational in nature, they quickly migrated into transportation corridors). It seemed a win-win. What was missed, though, was that high-speed auto traffic and parkland do not readily mix. Cars are loud, and the roadway produced a wall, not only separating communities on either side, but making the parks themselves often quite unpleasant. Take, for example, the West Side Improvement, the massive extension of the Henry Hudson Parkway from the north end of Manhattan south to 59th street and its accompanying park. While the park was a huge step up from what was there, and the roadway still is a vital transportation corridor, the parkway itself divides the park and separates the city from its waterfront.
The same could be said for any number of Moses projects. Lincoln Center is a single use facility, massively up to date and modern for the time, but concentrating any potential benefits to a tiny area rather than distributing them around the city. Even Moses massive number of so called "vest-pocket" parks, though a welcome addition, are problematic: especially post-World War II, many tend to be concrete slabs with a handful of trees, with no grass or soft material; hardly the ideal park.
Much of this, even the emphasis on automotive transport first, could be defended as simply untested experimentation that seemed well, at least from an urban planning point of view. Whether a Jane Jacobs figure could or should have come earlier is a matter for another time. But Bob Moses cannot be defended entirely in the same vein. His projects were about consolidating power and prestige. He constantly reject adding provisions for mass transit on his highways, and he never made an attempt in his career to listen to differing opinions on how, for example, parks should be built. After all, he was the "master builder." While New York needed many of his projects, Robert Moses the man is rightfully reviled to this day.
And, unfortunately, the specter of Moses is with us to this day, albeit in reverse. No project of size can go by without massive community protest, no matter the design or purpose. In many ways, these are the psychological and political scars of Moses, to prevent any group or individual from steam rolling projects. And while that is itself a rational and good idea, it can lead to a conservative inertia to build nothing, no matter how necessary, as someone somewhere has a complaint, justified or not. Even construction of the Second Avenue Subway, a massively necessary project, was opposed for the temporary burden it would pose to businesses along the route. While a real concern, such cannot be allowed to stand in the way of public good (although every remedial action reasonable and possible should be taken). While there are disagreements on what the level of project building should be, the answer clearly cannot be to build nothing, ever, or else the city, and indeed any city, would cease to be, for it is the constant change and adapting to needs that make a city the vibrant, powerful institution it is.